What a season it was for the Buffalo Sabres; and by that, I mean what a disaster it was. Finishing with a record of 15-34-7, good for 37 points, was good for dead last in the NHL. This season included an 18-game losing streak, which tied the 2003-04 Pittsburgh Penguins for the longest in NHL history.
This offseason will surely be an eventful one for the Sabres, as several issues must be resolved. Whatever the vision for this team was, it’s likely about to change in some way. This group and the established culture aren’t good enough, and this team is likely to worsen before it gets better.
The central storyline around this team this offseason will be around Jack Eichel. Rumours have been swirling for a long time about Eichel being traded out of Buffalo, and the sense is that could happen very soon. If that’s the case, there will surely be numerous teams interested in the first-line centre.
Teams will need clarity on Eichel’s health and if surgery will be required or not. Regardless, the Sabres can’t afford to get humiliated in this deal. It’s so challenging for the team’s trading away the best player to end up winning the trade. The Sabres shouldn’t just be focused on high draft picks; there’s too much randomness in that. They should also be demanding some already drafted prospects that might not be too far away from being NHL ready.
The reason being is that Buffalo needs bodies to play on their roster. They have a healthy dose of UFA’s and RFA’s to deal with this offseason. Thankfully, they have ample cap space, so signing players such as Sam Reinhart and Rasmus Dahlin to contract extensions should be too hard if both parties want the relationship to continue.
They also have the first overall pick in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft. Most expect the Sabres to select defenceman Owen Power. If they select the 6’5″ defenceman from the University of Michigan, it seems to look like he will be returning to the NCAA for one more season before making the jump to the NHL. It’s rare that a #1 pick doesn’t play in the NHL the following season, but no player has ever said developing their game a little more before the NHL has hurt them in the long run. Besides, the Sabres aren’t trying to be incredible next season, so it shouldn’t deter them from selecting Owen power.
This offseason, both their goaltenders, Linus Ullmark and Carter Hutton, are set to become unrestricted free agents. At age 35, it’s unlikely Hutton returns to the rebuilding Sabres. However, Ullmark actually put up decent numbers this past season when you consider the team in front of him, putting up a .917 save percentage and a 2.63 goals-against average. He might demand a significant salary increase to stay with the Sabres, but at only age 27, he might still be at the top of his game when the Sabres plan to be competitive once again.
They also decided to stick with Don Granato, removing the interim tag and having him become the team’s new head coach. It crucial they get this decision right, and they sure got a good long look at him as interim head coach this season. They must have seen enough good things from him to trust that he is the man to help right this ship. The Sabres record with him as interim head coach shouldn’t be the deciding factor; the organization understands the roster he was working with this season.
The Sabres will still have a large sum of cap space to use this offseason and should look to take advantage of that via trade. Free agency will be different, as many prominent players hitting the market won’t likely find Buffalo an attractive destination to sign. Include that with the Seattle Expansion draft, and there could be lots of opportunities for the Sabres to use their cap space to acquire valuable players or assets to add to their organization.
This offseason is all about helping the organization out in the best way possible for years down the line. The focus can’t be to improve for the 2021-22 season; it wouldn’t make any sense. Buffalo might be the furthest away team from being competitive, and this offseason needs to be a sign of understanding that reality and building off that. Sadly, the Eichel era is likely approaching its end in Buffalo, but the result can be different for Rasmus Dahlin, Dylan Cozens, and likely Owen Power.